Miami Soul Sister
"Play it for me, Little Beaver!" Joss Stone breathlessly calls out in the middle of her new song "Super Duper Love." It's a command that hasn't been heard on a record in nearly 30 years, but the stinging guitar notes sound just as fresh as the chugging, Southern-fried organ groove that pumps away underneath -- courtesy of two other living legends of Miami soul, keyboardists Latimore and Timmy Thomas.
You'd never know that Willie "Little Beaver" Hale's hands are more preoccupied these days with the intricacies of the county's Tri-Rail train system. Or that Thomas's regular audiences have moved from Overtown's fabled Harlem Square Club to the Miami public-school classroom where he teaches. And unseen, but conducting the entire session with the type of physical energy that would give Leonard Bernstein a heart attack, is co-producer Betty Wright -- cherished by singers such as Jennifer Lopez and Gloria Estefan who've hired her for vocal coaching, yet unknown to most of those same stars' fans.
All four figures were key architects of the original "Miami Sound" -- the early-Seventies scene that gave the nation such genre-defining (and irresistibly hip-shaking) hits as Gwen McRae's "Rockin' Chair," husband George's "Rock Your Baby," Wright's "Clean Up Woman," and Thomas's "Why Can't We Live Together?" The vocalists may have changed on those singles, but just as the Funk Brothers were the anonymous band behind Motown's many crooners, and Booker T. and the MG's powered Stax Records' varied R&B shouters, Miami's flagship Alston and TK imprints continually utilized the same core group of players. The result, a signature South Floridian vibe, featured easygoing rhythms that were smooth but never slick -- and with just the right amount of sass creeping up between the clipped riffs.
The impetus for the Miami Sound's return to wax (or digitized compact disc, as the case may be today) is a sixteen-year-old British girl, Joss Stone, whose record label (the EMI-distributed S-Curve) is determined to create a homegrown answer to Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club. Just substitute Miami's forgotten legends of funk for Havana's similarly sidelined son masters. Except that the booming voice fronting this old-school revival is the jarring epitome of blue-eyed soul.
"People look at her long blond hair, and then they hear that voice," Betty Wright chuckles, conjuring up a mental image of Stone, whose clean-cut visage would appear better suited to a duet with Britney Spears than to belting out classic soul numbers with an at-times moving sense of authority.
"Elderly black people are the worst," Wright continues, recalling Stone's performance at downtown Miami's Tobacco Road a few weeks ago. "They all came up afterwards and asked me" -- Wright adopts a conspiratorial sotto voce -- "'Betty, just tell me, is she really white? That's your light-skinned niece, now tell the truth.' I just say, 'That girl is born with that!'"
It's a response Stone herself is growing accustomed to. Speaking with Kulchur by phone from her home in Devon, England, she remembers the reaction when she walked into North Miami's the Hit Factory/Criteria studio to begin recording her debut album, The Soul Sessions. Wright had assembled her cast of soul veterans, rounded out by Lenny Kravitz's drummer and bassist, Cyndi Blackman and Jeff Daley, themselves slavishly devoted to reproducing that classic Seventies feel, down to their bell-bottom jeans and analog tube amplifiers. But whoever they might have been expecting to stride through the studio door, it sure wasn't Stone.
"They looked a little shocked at first," Stone laughs. "This little white English girl -- she ain't gonna be able to sing!" But once she grabbed the microphone ...
"It's not about color," she insists, "and I think everybody came to realize that. This is soul music -- what, don't I have a soul?"
Perhaps more surprising than Stone's facility at hitting those high notes is the ease with which she invests them with bona fide emotion. Throughout The Soul Sessions's nine covers of soul obscurities (as well as a slinky, molasses-paced overhaul of the White Stripes' garage-rock roarer, "Fell in Love with a Girl"), the common theme is men -- of the lyin' and cheatin' kind. But how does a sixteen-year-old living in rural England know so much about heartache?
"I've been through it, man!" Stone retorts good-naturedly. "Just because I'm sixteen doesn't mean I sit in my room. I do get out!" And take it from her (Mama Stone, please stop reading here), teenage lotharios are no less cruel than their older brothers. "I can relate to a lot of the lyrics I'm singing," she adds, pausing for a world-weary sigh. "Believe me."
With the imminent release of her album, upcoming television appearances are already set for Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and ABC's Good Morning America. Add in a U.S. tour and Stone's September schedule is full. So much for childhood.
Be honest: Is promoting this album just an excuse to get out of school?
"Aw, hell yes!" Stone hollers into the phone. "Oh my gawd, I hate school!" she gushes as the wizened diva quickly disappears from her tone. "You have to get up early in the morning -- that's bad enough. But then you have to go to school? It's torture!"
Like everyone else, S-Curve president Steve Greenberg had to see Stone in the flesh to believe it. A die-hard soul aficionado (and the producer of Atlantic Records' mammoth Stax/Volt singles collection and Otis Redding box sets), he was intrigued by the passion for that material he heard on Stone's demo tape, the result of her appearance on a U.K. television show in the style of American Idol. Greenberg flew Stone -- then only fourteen -- to his Manhattan office for an audition. He hit play on a karaoke version of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia" and sat back in his chair in anticipation. The sight of this barely pubescent child tossing her head, fully inhabiting the body of a jaded woman who ached that "L.A. proved too much for the man," was, well, too much.
"I was on the floor laughing," Greenberg admits, cracking up at the memory. "I thought for sure she was miming to a hidden tape recorder. Imagine what she's going to be like at 21!" Playing to his new act's strengths, he eventually pulled in Wright and had her hunt down her old Alston Records pals, gambling that a vintage approach was the key to launching Stone.
It's certainly a bet worth taking. Greenberg has made a career out of turning leftfield pop acts into smashes. Industry colleagues scoffed when in 2000 he signed a deal with the folksy Bahamian junkanoo act the Baha Men. After all, the group had already bombed at both Atlantic and Mercury -- its last album had sold a grand total of 722 copies. The snickering ceased, though, as the Baha Men's Greenberg-produced "Who Let the Dogs Out?" became a cultural phenomenon, heard in baseball stadiums and soda commercials, selling five million albums along the way.
Before that, in 1996, Greenberg had inked an odd Oklahoma trio of wholesome, home-schooled teens with a penchant for bubbly melodies. "The world was mired in grunge; everybody laughed at me," he recalls. That band was Hanson, and it would go on to be one of the following year's biggest acts. "I just had this hunch that the kids in America weren't as depressed as the music suggested they were," he quips. "And look what happened in Hanson's wake: the Backstreet Boys, Britney, 'N Sync -- a whole avalanche of artists who are sixteen years old."
So does this mean the world is about to see a full-on revival of the Miami Sound? Greenberg counsels caution here, and he concedes his Midas touch can be inconsistent. Heard of the Beu Sisters, the Florida surfing siblings Greenberg touted to Billboard this past spring as destined for chartbound glory? Don't worry, nobody else has heard of them either.
"If this record can help music lovers appreciate, once again, the genius of Little Beaver, then great!" Greenberg counters. "Didn't we do something then?"
But wouldn't it be ironic if it took a sixteen-year-old white girl, from a British farm town no less, to remind America of Miami's aging urban soulsters? Betty Wright addresses that question without missing a beat: "God has a sense of humor."
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